Remarks by Mr Noel Treacy, T.D., Minister for European Affairs at the Seminar on the European Commission’s White Paper on European Communication Policy, 23 November 2006.
I want to begin by thanking Martin Territt and his team here at the Commission's Office in Dublin for organising this seminar today. Commissioner Margot Wallstrom and her team deserve great credit for putting Communication policy firmly on the EU agenda. I would like to extend a warm welcome to Ireland to her Chef de Cabinet, Rolf Annerberg, who is with us here today and whose insights will be most welcome.
As many of you will know, I am particularly interested in the subject under discussion, as a key part of my own job in Government involves communicating Europe to the Irish people. This is a task that I regard as very important and at the same time very challenging.
As the European Union approaches its fiftieth birthday, it is probably fair to say that, despite the Union's impact on the lives of its citizens, it is still one of the world's best kept secrets. This may be because of the unique nature of the organisation and the unavoidable complexity of its workings. It may also be on account of the dominance of national issues in political debate in the Member States. This is especially true here in Ireland, where some would say that politics is a national pastime and a natural strength. The relative lack of knowledge of EU affairs may reflect the unsettling fact that we have not coherently explained the benefits of EU membership and the relevance of the EU's continued success to ordinary people in clear, consistent and persuasive ways.
Personally, therefore I am glad to be here this morning to endorse the Commission's initiative to recast its approach to communications policy. The Commissioner's White Paper has engaged Governments, the media and other players in a fresh look at communication policy. I would like to briefly outline Ireland's own approach on this vital issue.
My Department recently forwarded our response to the White Paper to Commissioner Wallstrom. The Paper provides much food for thought on how best to ensure that citizens can access coherent, accurate information about the current and future work of the Union. We agree that a new policy approach to communication must have as its purpose to encourage better public understanding, greater debate and wider scrutiny of EU institutions, EU policy and EU decisions.
Among my roles in Government is that I chair the Interdepartmental Coordinating Committee on European Union Affairs. Martin Territ was good enough to come to a meeting of the Committee last June to make a presentation on the Commission's White Paper. I was particularly struck by one of the many interesting things he said on that occasion. Talking about the new approach envisaged in the Paper, Martin called for “dialogue not monologue”. A simple phrase but one I think that cuts to the heart of the communications challenges we face. Whether rightly or wrongly, many European citizens regard the Union as a faceless entity, turned in on itself and, yes, conducting a monologue which goes over their heads. We in Ireland have tried, with some success I believe, to get a dialogue going in our society about Europe.
Following the No vote in the first Nice Referendum of 2001, the Government established the National Forum on Europe. The Forum has facilitated debate and dialogue on key European Union developments and Ireland's role in the European Union. It has disseminated public information about key EU issues in innovative and user friendly ways and has travelled the highways and byways of Ireland to listen to the concerns of our people.
The Forum brings together public representatives and political parties along with a wide spectrum of civil society groups and NGOs. Leading European politicians, key officials and expert opinion-formers are always welcome to address the Forum. Members of the Commission and other EU institutions have been regular and highly valued visitors. Indeed next Thursday, Josep Borrell, President of the European Parliament, will deliver a keynote speech to the Forum and we look forward very much to hearing what he has to say.
In applauding the work of the Forum, I want to acknowledge the role played by all our political parties in its success. They have come to the Forum, argued their case and contributed to better debate and real dialogue. The same applies to our thriving NGO community. I have sat in the Forum on many occasions and heard the Government praised to the skies by one speaker only to be criticised sharply by the next. That is democracy in action. If European policies are relevant, they will withstand the heat of political debate and retain their relevance.
As an elected representative for nearly twenty five years, I am acutely aware that the Oireachtas itself has a responsibility in getting the importance of European issues across to the wider public. The Joint Committee on European Affairs is a very active player in this regard. As part of our greatly enhanced EU scrutiny arrangements, Minister Dermot Ahern or myself appear before the Committee on a monthly basis to discuss the agenda for the General Affairs and External Relations Council. I think we are setting a good example in this regard. I can testify to the forensic approach taken by the Joint Committee and that is how it should be.
In May of this year the Joint Committee organised Europe Day in the Oireachtas which saw a full day of parliamentary business devoted to European issues. This included a joint address to both Houses by Commissioner Fischer-Boel. The Commissioner answered questions from members of Parliament on EU agricultural issues. The general public was invited, through radio and newspaper advertising, to submit questions to the Committee on European issues. This was an innovative and successful way of engaging the wider public and I hope it can be repeated in future years.
Another important aspect of the Government's overall communications strategy on EU issues is the Communicating Europe Initiative. It was set up in 1995 and it does what it says on the tin! Financial backing is provided to a range of organisations in support of projects aimed at raising public awareness of the EU. In recent years, the Initiative has funded programmes in collaboration with educational institutions, youth bodies, trades unions, women's organisations and local groups.
In 2006, €205,000 was made available by Government for the CEI. Some of this funding is still available and more will be coming on stream in January. I encourage anyone here today who might have a suitable idea or project in mind to contact the EU Division in my Department who will be able to give further information on how to apply for funding. I especially encourage applications for projects aimed at marking the 50th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in 2007.
We often describe ourselves as good Europeans and regard ourselves as well-informed about European issues. If we are well-informed, and this might be for others to judge, I believe that the inclusive and partnership-based approach that successive Governments have adopted has been vital. We have tried to close the communications gap on European issues, but there is much more that needs to be done. Communication is an ongoing responsibility. The task of informing citizens will never be completed. As the Union changes, our people will need to be kept abreast with these changing realities. Our task must be to make the EU an integral part of our public life so the citizens do not make any qualitative distinction between national and European affairs. They are both part of a political process devoted to promoting the well being of all. That is not to say that we do not welcome the White Paper. We are ready to engage on the detailed proposals that will flow from the consultation period underway. At the heart of the Commission's strategy are three principles;
Listening to citizens: taking their views and concerns into account;
Communicating how our policies affect their everyday lives;
Connecting with citizens by 'going local'.
To a large extent, the commissions approach mirrors what we have been trying to do here in Ireland. We have had some success and some of our partners have looked at our approach and sought to learn from it.
We look forward to the spring when Margot Wallstrom will be publishing her final proposals. We are certainly ready to work with the Commission and our partners on a Communication Policy that will serve the people of Europe in the digital age. This type of seminar will throw up innovative proposals and is clearly going to be of great benefit to Martin and his team in getting a distinctively Irish feedback on the White Paper.
Success for the type of policy realignment outlined in the White Paper will clearly mean a greater communication role for the local offices of the Commission in the Member States. The Commission office here in Dublin has always played an active role in the political and civic life of the country and punched above its weight in the best Irish tradition. The office has a standing panel of expert speakers who are available to address local community organisations on EU issues. What a resource that is for the community. The outreach to schools, colleges and community groups from European Union House has been of tremendous value over the years. With greater responsibilities and resources, I am confident this will continue and grow.
The Commission's logo for the 50th Anniversary celebrations is a representation of the word, “Together”. I am delighted to see that there is an Irish language version, “Le Chéile”. This reminds us that on 1 January next, Irish becomes an official and working language of the European Union. This will require us to ensure a high quality of communication in the Irish language between the Government, the European Institutions and all Irish citizens. The Government looks forward to working with the Institutions on this topic and we thank them for their cooperation to date.
In conclusion, I want to thank Martin and his colleagues again for organising this seminar, for assembling a very distinguished panel of expert speakers and for their on-going efforts to keep the Irish people well-informed about Europe. We all have a part to play and this office is certainly up to the task. I hope that you all benefit from the seminar and wish you an enjoyable and productive morning.Top